Stephen Jolly - Fired up for an intellectual battle

Cambridge University's comms head is drawing on a mix of academia and business nous to prepare for his new role at the MoD, finds John Owens.

The dark arts: Stephen Jolly
The dark arts: Stephen Jolly

UK troops will begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan this year amid a period of almost unprecedented uncertainty for the armed forces.

Debate around the pros and cons of the 12 years of engagement will rumble on, but an even bigger question shall outlive it: amid budget cuts and a shifting geopolitical landscape, just what is the role of our military?

The man set to leave the ivory towers of academia for the trench warfare of the Ministry of Defence's director of comms role in April has few illusions about the task at hand. Sporting a sharp pinstripe suit, current head of external affairs and comms at Cambridge University Stephen Jolly says he is arriving at 'one of the most pivotal moments in British defence'.

Of course there is Afghanistan, but in what Jolly terms a 'transformational' role there is also the 'rescaling and rebalancing' of the forces to contend with. This translates to reported cuts of £735m to the department's core budget for 2013-15, with 9,500 redundancies over the next two years.

Unsurprisingly, Jolly picks out a focus on internal comms as key to his future work, before pointing to the rise of digital as posing a 'real intellectual puzzle'.

'We've seen the command and control structure of traditional comms become defunct, whereas it is still very central to running a military operation, so it's about finding a compromise there.'

The 'intellectual puzzle' comment is indicative of a 52-year-old whose blend of commercial, academic and military leanings paints an intriguing picture.

Not backward in coming forward, Jolly is, by his own admission, highly competitive and has no lack of self-belief - he argues his current role at Cambridge is 'absolutely at the forefront of comms' globally.

Jolly's career extends well beyond the confines of the public sector, having held senior roles at blue chip City institutions. His CV includes stints at Japanese banking giant Nomura and Regus - at the latter he helped the FTSE 250 company bounce back from a catastrophic share price slump.

But hear the 18th century art collector theorise on comms, a subject in which he has great academic interest, and the call from Cambridge eight years ago starts to make more sense.

He calls the tussle between academia and business 'a motif that has run throughout my career'. And it has evidently been of vital importance during his current job, which was clinched when he met the then vice-chancellor Alison Richard, whom he describes as 'extraordinary'.

According to long-time friend Rupert Ashe, director at D5 Capital, Jolly's blue-chip nous and public affairs experience have served him in good stead.

'He is a sophisticated operator, with an academic background and ability to think very deeply about how he constructs his comms strategies. He is also very politically well informed, and a lot of fun,' Ashe says.

To hear Jolly speak about Cambridge is to hear of an eight-century-old institution working to position itself as global, research-driven and meritocratic.

The stats certainly back up the first two points. Cambridge was last year reported as having assets worth more than £4bn and more than 9,000 staff.

When asked what he thinks of Oxford University, though any competitive fire is kept well in check the answer is neatly dismissive: 'Our main competition is in the US, with places like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and MIT. We don't spend time worrying about domestic competition.'

The university is taking a slowly growing number of undergraduates from non-private school backgrounds, but it is telling that Jolly - whose remit does not cover students - acknowledges a key part of his job is 'to dispel the image of Cambridge as a refuge of snobs'. Among the stereotypes he lists as 'most toxic' is that of 'Oxbridge', a 'journalistic cliche more about ideas of class than any substance'.

The motto, then, as coined by Jolly, is 'we're not interested in where you come from, it's where you're going'.

And yet where Jolly has come from to take on the MoD job has attracted interest. In the late 90s, the weightlifting enthusiast worked with the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group at the UK Defence Intelligence & Security School in Chicksands.

Jolly is understandably cautious when discussing the subject, but the role saw him teaching soldiers and naval personnel from across the world about propaganda techniques. This, coupled with a long list of studies into what is termed 'black propaganda', or the art of sowing false information, prompted a recent Guardian column asking whether the MoD appointment had been a 'own goal'.

Dismissing the piece as 'predictable', Jolly is adamant that the MoD appointment had nothing to do with either the research or military work.

It was, he stresses, everything to do with his commercial background and history of 'transformational' comms.

Why, then, the interest in black propaganda?

'Black ops are one extreme end of the PR spectrum. If you are a persuader it is important to understand the range within the spectrum but it is not something I would do. The interest is purely academic.'

So it seems suggestions that the MoD has snared a modern-day PR Machiavelli are far-fetched. But one thing is certain - with Wikileaks, staffing cuts and tough questions over Afghanistan all on the agenda, Jolly will need all his powers of persuasion.


From April 2013 Director of comms, Ministry of Defence

2005 Director of external affairs and comms, University of Cambridge

2001 Group comms director, Regus Group

2000 Director, international public affairs, Clearstream

1996 Director, corporate comms, Nomura

1996-1999 Instructor, UK Defence Intelligence & Security School

1994 Group comms manager, HSBC Holdings

1992 Strategic comms manager, Coopers & Lybrand (PwC)

1988 Head of government affairs, Valin Pollen Group

1986 Killam fellow, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

1985 Executive assistant, Sterling PR

1984 Graduate trainee, Leo Burnett Advertising


What was your biggest career break?

When I took on my first full-service comms director role with Nomura in 1996. By the time I left at the beginning of 2000, I had US$15bn of deals under my belt.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I have had several. Early in my career, I had the great fortune to work with Arthur Butler, one of Westminster's greatest lobbyists. In the past few years, I have got to know Harold Burson. And Lord Watson is like a father to me.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

Never give up. If you have a dream, cleave to that dream. You will find a way to achieve your goals whatever the obstacles. And don't fear failure. Failure can be a harsh teacher but it is almost always instructive.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

I like to see relentlessness and energy and hunger. God save me from half-heartedness.

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